Using Fictive Narrative to Teach Ethics/Philosophy

Michael Boylan, Felcia Nimue Ackerman, Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez, Sybol Cook Anderson, Edward Spence

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


What moves students to think philosophically? What does it mean to think philosophically? There is some disagreement on this, but fromthe point of view of teaching it must include a disposition to inquire about everything especially foundational principles concerning thegood, the true, and the beautiful. David Hume called this sort of temperament: mitigated skepticism. It has driven exploration into thecore areas of philosophy: ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, and logic. Socrates (a model for many of us in the Western tradition) calledhimself alternately a stingray and a midwife to describe his own teaching role in breeding and nurturing future philosophers and citizens of Athens. Following the example of Socrates, how can philosophers in today's classroom engage and stimulate students in just this manner so that they undergo enhanced capability to enter into the philosophical quest? Some choose a quasi-mathematical approach. These are the folk who position logic front and center in the enterprise. Most philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition feel some keen sensibility to this approach. There is something very central about logic and philosophy. But this is not the entire story. Logic is a necessary but not a sufficient condition in learning to think philosophically. There is more: harkening back to Socrates, 'the unexamined life is not worth living.' These words invoke both ethics as a sub-category to philosophy but they also call philosophers into the practical realm (including epistemology and metaphysics). Philosophers have to speak to the human condition in ways that regular people (such as our students) can understand. Philosophy is not just about some esoteric audience but is essentially exoteric with a message to all.To this end a group of us set-up an empirical study at a mix of universities to try to measure secondary outcomes (students reporting ontheir own learning experiences) in a class taught conventionally, for the most part, with the addition of fiction (five of the six institutions) and film (one of the six institutions). What we wanted to ascertain was what affect did fiction have in teaching philosophy within a traditional featuring direct discourse non-fictional works? Is the addition of fiction into the traditional setting positive? If so, then our study would be a beacon for structuring curricula: include some fiction within our traditional philosophy courses. What follows are the results of this study.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)61-94
Number of pages34
JournalTeaching Ethics: The Journal of the Society for Ethics across the Curriculum
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2011


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